For the second time in three seasons, the Toronto Marlies were the best AHL team in the regular season.
After reaching the final in 2012 and losing out in the Conference Finals twice since then, the question now becomes: Can this Toronto Marlies team raise the first Calder Cup in franchise history?
They may not contain the offensive power the class of 2015-16 possessed, but this current roster is a more rounded team from top to bottom, as they proved by winning the regular season title without a host of superstar talent to call on.
Defense and Goaltending
There’s little doubt that Toronto’s biggest asset heading into the playoffs will be their goaltending, which won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for the 2017-18 season for giving up the fewest goals per game in the regular season. Garret Sparks looks set to take the majority of starts, with Sheldon Keefe already confirming he’ll start Game 1. However, don’t rule out Calvin Pickard receiving opportunities in back-to-back situations.
Interestingly, neither goaltender has much in the way of playoff pedigree. Sparks is 3-3 through seven starts, and you might be surprised to learn Pickard has never played a professional playoff game in his career to date.
The Marlies are blessed with a plethora of experience on the blue line, including a Calder Cup Champion among their ranks. Vincent LoVerde captained the Manchester Monarchs to a championship in 2015 and is a veteran of 45 playoff games in five campaigns.
Justin Holl and Martin Marincin have a combined 51 playoff games between them as well as NHL experience to call on. Holl was a key figure during the 2017 playoffs with seven points in 11 games and was particularly instrumental in the series win against Albany last Spring.
Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman have both featured in European playoff campaigns, while fellow Swedes Timothy Liljegren and Jesper Lindgren (not likely to feature) will also be entering into the unknown as far as post-season hockey in North America is concerned.
It’s been an disappointing sophomore season overall for Andrew Nielsen, but he finished the year on a high note. He’ll look to build on a steady 2017 playoff campaign in which he produced a goal and three assists through 11 outings.
Overall, the Marlies blue line and goaltending depth has been a major asset all season and should continue to be in Round 1.
Up front, the Marlies will be looking to a mixture of veterans and rookies to light the lamp, with proven AHL offensive performers in the shape of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen fixtures on the Leafs roster for the time being.
Chris Mueller is the second Calder Cup Champion on the Marlies roster and was a part of the 2014 Texas Stars team that eliminated Toronto in Game 7 of the Conference Final before beating St. John’s in the final itself. He’s been there, seen it and got the T-shirt, with 48 points (23-25) in 68 playoff games.
Ben Smith was a part of the 2015-16 Marlies team that fell short of the championship, but it certainly wasn’t on him — he produced a pair of goals and seven assists through 15 games. The Captain has recorded career-highs in assists and points this season and will be heavily relied upon in all manner of situations by Sheldon Keefe.
Colin Greening is another to bring a wealth of experience, having won the Calder Cup with Binghamton way back in 2011. Last season was a disappointment offensively for the versatile forward, but he has been a revitalized player in 2017-18 with 16 goals to his name.
Toronto’s top line will feature three forwards in good form offensively. Carl Grundstrom made a huge impact in the 2017 playoffs with three goals and an assist in just six outings. He’s an improved player one year later and has quickly found chemistry next to center Miro Aaltonen, who finished the season with 20 goals for the first time in his pro career.
The Finnish centerman has European playoff experience (Liiga and KHL) and is likely to have Trevor Moore on his right side. Moore’s been one of Toronto’s hottest offensive players down the stretch — seven points in his last five games — and heads into the post-season brimming with confidence.
The kid line featuring rookies Jeremy Bracco, Adam Brooks and Mason Marchment also stepped up down the stretch for the team, and it looks as if it will remain a fixture heading into the post-season. Marchment had a taste of the ECHL playoffs in 2017 with Orlando, recording five points (1-4-5) in seven games.
Another rookie winger, Pierre Engvall, made one appearance during the 2017 Calder Cup run. With eight points in nine games to end the regular season, the Swedish forward is in form and could line up on Frederik Gauthier‘s wing. “The Goat” will be looking for redemption after falling victim to a Jake Dotchin hit during the 2017 playoff series with Syracuse, a hit that ended his year and required off-season surgery.
Rounding out the roster are Rich Clune (veteran of 31 playoff games), the diminutive Dmytro Timashov (pointless through six career playoff games), and Kyle Baun, whose last post-season involvement was with Rockford in 2016.
Toronto also has a few depth options practicing, including Joshua Winquist and Kristian Pospisil.
First Round Opponent: Utica Comets
The Utica Comets (38-26-12) finished fourth in the North Division and were the lowest scorers (211 goals) of any Eastern Conference team to qualify for the playoffs.
They should not be overlooked, however, and match up well against Toronto in some aspects, particularly on special teams. The Marlies and the Comets power play both produced at 18% through the year. During the season series, Utica scored six with the man advantage compared to Toronto’s five. The Marlies boasted the league’s best penalty kill at 88.9%, but Utica ranked second at 85.5%.
The regular season series between the two teams saw Toronto come out on top with a 5-2-1 record. Garret Sparks won all four starts against the Comets and Ben Smith led the way with eight points (4-4-8). Defensemen provided plenty of offense in the season series, with Andrew Nielsen (0-7-7) and Justin Holl (3-3-6) registering seven and six points, respectively, and Vincent LoVerde twice found the net.
Utica enters the playoffs with as strong of a roster as they’ve had this season, but they will still heavily lean on goaltender Thatcher Demko. An AHL All-Star selection, Demko posted a 25-13-7 record, a 2.44 goals against average, a .922 save percentage, and a single shutout. He’ll be backed up by the experienced Richard Bachman, but it’s certainly not as strong of a tandem as the Marlies’ netminding duo.
Having lost Reid Boucher to Vancouver, Michael Chaput stepped up for the Comets and led the team in goals (17), points (42) and power play goals (9). Others who chipped in for the Comets offensively include Michael Carcone (15 goals), Zack MacEwen, Cole Cassels, and defenseman Patrick Wiercioch, who led the team in assists (27).
It’s the Comets’ late additions from the parent club that will have Toronto most concerned, however. Nikolay Goldobin has been reassigned from Vancouver, although the level of his involvement is unclear, with some injury doubts surrounding him. The Russian forward is dominant at the AHL level, recording 31 points (9-22) in 30 games for the Comets earlier in the season.
Left winger Tyler Motte has also been reassigned by the Canucks after being acquired in February from Columbus. Motte has 21 goals in 67 AHL career games and a further two in three Calder Cup playoff games.
A sixth round selection by Vancouver in 2015, 20-year-old Lukas Jasek is now getting his first taste of the North American game. Signed to a PTO on March 31, the Czech forward has made an immediate impact with seven points (3-4-7) in six games, including a goal and two assists against the Marlies.
Originally drafted 42nd overall by Ottawa in 2016, Jonathan Dahlen has been a point-per-game player in Sweden (Allsvenskan) the past two seasons. Reassigned by Vancouver to Utica just over a week ago, the talented young winger produced a goal and an assist in his second appearance.
Keys to the Series
Although Utica has been able to inject some extra offense and skill into their lineup for the playoffs, it doesn’t change the fact their success is built off being an extremely hard working team, and Toronto will have to match that.
Goaltending will play a hugely important role, with three of the league’s best competing in this series. For Toronto, it’s a case of creating traffic in front of Thatcher Demko and looking to create second and third scoring opportunities.
With the special teams so closely matched, discipline could prove to be the difference. The Marlies were the least penalized team in the Eastern Conference, while Utica were the fourth most, going shorthanded on 338 occasions.
Starts will be key as well. Both teams have proven themselves as excellent front runners through the regular season: Toronto were 26-2-2-1 and 36-1-0-1 when leading after the first and second periods, respectively, while Utica lost just three games in regulation when holding an advantage after 20 minutes.
Toronto Marlies vs. Utica Comets – First Round Schedule
|Date||Home Team||Puck Drop|
|Saturday, April 21||Toronto||4 p.m. EST|
|Sunday, April 22||Toronto||4 p.m. EST|
|Wednesday, April 25||Utica||7 p.m. EST|
|Friday, April 27*||Utica||7 p.m. EST|
|Sunday, April 29*||Toronto||4 p.m. EST|